RICHMOND — A proposed constitutional amendment meant to make it easier to establish charter schools in Virginia cleared the state Senate Wednesday after a heated debate over whether the measure would undermine public education and local control of schools.
Brought by Sen. Mark D. Obenshain (R-Rockingham), the amendment would grant the state Board of Education authority to establish charter schools within local school districts across the state.
That power currently rests with local school boards, which have been so resistant to charters that only seven have been established statewide. Neighboring Maryland has 51, according to the Maryland State Department of Education. In the District, 45 percent of public school children attend charters, according to the advocacy group Focus.
Critics questioned the constitutionality of the amendment, which still faces several hurdles. To change Virginia’s constitution, a proposed amendment must pass the General Assembly in two consecutive years, with an election in between. It then needs approval from voters in a referendum.
The measure was one of two proposed constitutional amendments to pass in the Senate Wednesday. The other calls for the automatic restoration of civil rights to nonviolent felons upon the completion of their sentences. It passed the Senate easily but is expected to have a much tougher time in the GOP-dominated House of Delegates.
The charter school measure passed 21 to 17 on a party-line vote, surprising some observers, who had expected one or two moderate Republicans to vote against it or not vote at all. The resolution is expected to pass the House; Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) will not have a chance to weigh in since resolutions do not go to the governor’s desk.
Obenshain, who narrowly lost the 2013 race for attorney general and is exploring a run for governor, said that where charters are available, parents line up for the chance to get their children out of failing schools.
“There is a line in Washington, D.C. — a 325,000-person line nationwide,” he said. “Those are moms and dads and kids who are looking for opportunities across the country. And we’ve got those kids and those families here in Virginia. The answer in Virginia is not to make fewer slots available. We’ve got seven charter schools in Virginia — seven.”
Senate Minority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax) said charters would divert money from conventional public schools, with no guarantee that the educational outcomes would be any better. He said that charters in the Washington region have had a spotty record.
“At least three or four times a year, you pick up the newspaper and read about a disaster,” he said. “Our education system was ranked fourth in America. Why would we want to tamper with that?”
Saslaw’s remarks prompted Sen. Thomas A. Garrett Jr. (R-Buckingham) to counter that despite the state’s many top-performing schools, there are many students stuck in failing ones.
“We hear, ‘We don’t need this. We’re good.’ The current results for these kids are horrible,” he said.
Beyond the pros and cons of charters, the debate extended to the constitutionality of the proposed amendment.
Sen. Chap Petersen (D-Fairfax) voted against the resolution but said it was not because he opposes charter schools. He noted that as a lawyer in private practice, he represented a charter candidate that a “school division did not want to approve.”
But Petersen said he was concerned that the amendment would undermine the authority of local school boards.
“What we’re doing here is taking away local control of schools,” he said.
Robley Jones, lobbyist for the Virginia Education Association, said his organization opposes taking charter decisions away from locally elected boards and giving them to a “nine-member board appointed by the governor,” meaning the Board of Education.
In an interview, he proposed a scenario in which the state board dictated to a local board in a place like Falls Church, which receives only a small share of its school funding from the state.
“A nine-member board in Richmond [says], ‘You must open this school. You must fund it. You must administer it,’ when the people of Falls Church are electing their school board and they are paying over 80 percent of the freight for running that school,” Jones said. “We believe that decision should be closest to the people.”
Sen. Stephen H. Martin (R-Chesterfield) said the measure would empower citizens since voters would have the final say on whether to amend the constitution.
The resolution just squeaked by, as proposed amendments need not just a simple majority of senators present, but 21 votes, to clear the chamber. That means the measure could rise or fall on the outcome of Senate elections this fall. Republicans currently have a 21 to 19 advantage in the chamber.
The Senate also voted 29 to 9 for a proposed constitutional amendment to automatically restore voting and other civil rights to nonviolent felons upon completion of their sentence and any period of parole or probation.
The measure was brought by Sen. Rosalyn R. Dance (D-Petersburg). Currently, ex-felons can have their rights restored by applying to the governor.